First time on this blog? Beijing Traffic Lesson: Left Turn is probably a good place to start.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Best. Movie packaging. Ever.

OK, so you all know, as a marketing person serving a large software client, I have to take a hard line on piracy. Remember kids: Just Say No!

That said, I had to buy a pirated movie today. Not because I really want to watch it - it's "Babel", which I hear is good, but I rarely come home from a long day at work and say "I really need to watch a deep, complex film filled with emotional distress." More often, it's something like "Earnest Gets Stupider II" or "Exploding Helicopter: The Movie." (Props out to Pat!)

In this case, however, I had to shell out the 5 yuan (63 cents)just for the packaging. It's a cheap tri-fold knockoff of the real packaging, all cardboard, complete with the Cannes logo and a cutline from Rex Reed - "A Genuine Masterpiece!" - on the cover.

But on the back, the package designer decided to provide a little counterpoint:

I almost busted a gut.

Now, this HAS to be deliberate. It's a real review - I looked it up. Maybe an English-speaking designer thought it would be funny and most people wouldn't get it or care, or maybe he didn't like the movie, or maybe he counted on suckers like me actually going out of their way to buy it because it amused us and, at 63 cents, I've already gotten my entertainment value out of it.

In any case, it will have a special place in my collection when I get home.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Apartment was Designed to Kill Me

Now that I've been here 20 days, I have my doubts about whether the Chinese really like me. Oh sure, they're extremely polite and friendly to my face, but then they put me in an apartment that is a veritable Pit and Pendulum of ways to main and kill myself. Let's take a tour.

1.) Trip Inducing Doorways:

Most of the doorways, including the front, have a threshold that's a couple inches high. Apparently this is an architectural relic of superstition, which said that evil spirits couldn't make it over these. Large, clumsy, bleary-eyed Americans who just need to use the bathroom, for crying out loud, may have some trouble with them as well.

2.) Razor Sharp Doorknobs:

The doorknobs are made of flat pieces of metal, and the corners are slightly undercut, meaning that each of the four corners has a razor sharp edge that could bring down a boar, if said boar happened to be walking by the door with his arm swinging freely by his side.

3.) Convenient Electrified Showers:

Sure, they could have actually put the outlet UNDER the shower head, but where's the sport in that?

4.) Do-It-Yourself Defenestration Kit:

In the states, you rarely have free-opening windows in a high-rise building. At least theres a screen to help break my fall if I-- oh.

5.) Super-Secret Window Features:

Let's see, I just turn this handle ALL the way up, and--


--the window NOW tips into the room the long way, causing me to lose my balance and fall backwards through the screen shown previously.

After all that, I don't even want to know what the mysterious, unmarked, unmentioned shiny red button located above my bed - right next to the light switch, where I reach without looking every night when I go to sleep - does.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Happy Memorial Day, slackers!

While you're still dragging your lazy selves out of bed on a day off, I've already put in a full day at the office. Gave a good part of a creative presentation to a global software client today - felt like it went very well. I like presentations, and for once the fact that I spoke English was an asset.

Besides which, the creative thinking in the Beijing office is very good, which makes it easy to present. They do nice, clean, direct concepts that really deliver on the client objectives. Very thoughtfully done, too.

Anyway, after that I came home and had the traditional meal I make every Memorial Day in Beijing:

It's a stir-fry of chicken, onion, cashews and sesame seeds in soy sauce served over rice noodles, with potato chips, dill pickles and a crisp, refreshing Yanjing Beer, well known for their catchy slogan "Yanjing Beer? How much? And how much for the Heineken? Really? OK, I'll take the Yanjing Beer."

(OK, for you advertising sticklers out there, that's more of a Perception Shifting Case coupled with a Desired Consumer Outcome rather than a slogan.)

Anyway, have a good safe holiday back home. Talk to you later!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Where are my cheap DVDs? I was promised cheap DVDs!

From reading the newspapers back home, you would think that China is literally awash in pirated software, movies, music and the like, with vast turbulent seas of Spiderman III and Star Wars DVDs and the occasional whirlpool of movies by the Wayans brothers, and all around would be people with buckets flinging pirated material this way and that yelling "Please, Mr. American! Please save us from all these movies! Just take them!"

So I wasn't entirely surprised when, in the first few days there, I saw small 10-foot wide storefronts with hand-lettered signs offering DVDs for 10 yuan (about $1.25) each.

I WAS surprised the next day when I walked by the same store, and it was just a pile of broken shelving.

A couple days later I went to my local Vanguard store (kind of a small Target plus a grocery store) and discovered that their DVD section had just been replaced with an enormous toilet paper display.

There's been news about China cracking down on pirated stuff, and maybe it's just a drop in the bucket, but I was surprised to see such changes so quickly. It might really be happening this time - with the Olympics coming, and piracy so common, they probably need to get a head start.

That's not to say you can't find DVDs in Beijing. A coworker showed me a store one evening after work. It was like a speakeasy - you had to know the right door and the right stairs, and suddenly you emerge in a large, well-lit room bursting with videos, tourists and office workers.

As an upstanding citizen, needless to say I was morally outraged. After loudly berating the staff for taking money out of the mouths of Tom Cruise and Steven Spielberg, I went directly to the U.S. Ambassador and members of the U.S. trade commission to lodge a complaint.

(They were in aisle 2, buying copies of LOST Season 3 and arguing over whether the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie was just guilty fun or a sign of what's wrong with Hollywood today.)

I can't form a coherent story to save my life. It may be that I had poured so much of myself into BeijingBananaQuest '07 that now that it's over, I need a new focus. Or maybe it's that case of 24-hour Avian Influenza I've got. ("Here, handle some dead chickens," he said. What was I thinking?)

In any case, here's a bunch of little stuff that's been going on.

I ate eels yesterday. I had to go into the office on Saturday to proof some work for a presentation Monday, so my boss suggested we go out for lunch first. We went to a Chinese restaurant and I let him order, although I did ask for nothing with too many bones.

(Admittedly, the Boney Bone Pudding with Bone Sauce did have some bones.)

Seriously, though, another excellent meal. There was spicy stir-fried beef, two kinds of duck including one famous kind in which they take duck and egg yolks and apparently make some kind of loaf out of it, then slice it thin, a soy and tofu dish that almost had the texture of wheat bread, a rice and bean concoction, tea - and a big ole' bowl of eels.

Photo chosen for dramatic effect. Mine weren't this fresh.

"It's just spaghetti with heads," I whispered to myself. "Just spaghetti with heads."

And you know what? They weren't too bad. They had been stir fried with soy sauce and garlic, and they really tasted like soy sauce and garlic. Texture is a little weird, I admit, and I didn't go back for fourths, but after the chicken feet, a pleasant surprise.

After the DVD store, I joined my coworker on a trip to IKEA in Beijing. He needed to buy some household stuff, and we also had dinner (mmmm! Swedish meatballs!)

It was the exact same stuff we buy. With the same ridiculous, unpronounceable meaningless names. And the store was just as much of a maddening cattle chute as any in the States. Apparently the Swedes have figured out this 'global economy' thing.

I've been a little unsure what to see and how much effort I want to expend on weekends, especially since I am working full time. I had almost talked myself into spending the day watching movies - and then the 'How often will you be in Beijing' voice started going through my head. (Actually, through my headphones. I was talking with my wife, who fully supported my laziness but planted a seed to take some action.)

So I took a cab to Bei Hai Park, northwest of the Forbidden City.

It used to be a private playground for the Khan and rulers who lived in the Forbidden City. They dredged out a large lake, used the dirt to build a steep island, and did it all in a similar style to the Forbidden City. But it has more little staircases and rock gardens and these neat little lanes that have rock piled up on each side so you can find privacy and quiet for a few minutes. It also has a huge promenade along the lake and little buildings tucked against the side of the hill. Very neat.

(To the south is the new 'Forbidden City': The southern 2/3 of what used to be the park was converted into the residences of the Party leadership, according to the guidebook.)

From the island I walked north through a more modern park area, kind of like a smaller Central Park. Lots of people out and enjoying the day or out on the lake in small rented boats. For me, it was nice to see so much green again.

From there I went northeast through a touristy hutong (an old neighborhood of narrow alleys - probably a little lower-income, certainly a little run down, but the area I stuck to was along a lake and more open) to the Drum Tower, a 700 year old building that was used to keep time.

After that I walked down a street of small shops, poking my head in and looking around here and there until I got tired and took a cab home.

Anyway, here's some pictures:

OK, this is either really nerdy or too too precious, but my wife and I made a 'date' last night. We both downloaded the season finale of LOST from iTunes, then got on an audio-chat and watched it together.

HOLY SMOKES! That was a heck of an episode. Fellow LOST fanatics, we will have much to discuss when I get home.

I have more little stuff, but I think I've rambled long enough. Later!

Friday, May 25, 2007

China +15 days

U-S-A! U-S-A! BOO-yah!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Office

Just a quick one today. I've heard from ABSOLUTELY NONE of you that you want to hear more about my workplace. Well, you're not going to get off that easy.

First, the building. I work on the 9th floor.

Elevator etiquette calls for you to cram in as tightly as possible, and on each floor where the door opens, try to punch the 'door close' button before the person getting off can clear the threshold.

This is the creative area:

I know! It looks like an office! Amazing!

There's about 30 people in the creative group, three of whom speak English (the creative director, the secretary and one peer.) Of the remaining 27, at least one of them LOVES Kelly Clarkson and Linkin Park.

Here's my cube:

Now THAT monitor has seen some hard use.

The view from my window:

The buildings are walk-up apartments, between 4 and 7 stories, and they extend for many blocks. The look to have about 30 years of hard use behind them, a sharp contrast to the 2-3 year old office buildings on my side of the street. Those colorful squares are tiny shops, each maybe 10 feet wide. Haven't been in them, but there's one just out of range of this picture offering a 'full body massage' for 48 yuan, about $6. Talk about value!

My daily coffee ritual:

Eat your heart out, Starbucks!

And lastly, the view from the office:

So's you knows, I'm pretty sure that ain't fog.


...and proceed to have a very nice meal that doesn't involve any gross or upsetting food. I went to lunch with a couple fellow expats who have been in Beijing for some time. Good to meet more friendly faces.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Chinese Advertising Review: Nestle Coffee Posters -- plus, Banana Baby Steps

Today, as an advertising 'expert,' I'm going to take an in-depth look at the world of Chinese marketing. I'm going to start with the kilometer-long stretch of Nestle posters that line my walk to and from work each day, partly because I'm lazy, and partly because one of them has become a daily touchpoint for me.

So you understand, Nestle is EVERYWHERE in China. My apartment has a 5 gallon Nestle water dispenser. I drink Nescafe from a machine at work (Secret recipe: First, a cup of what comes out when I press the Latte button, then I sip it to make room, then a shot of what comes out when I press the Espresso button), and they have some wafer-cookie-chocolate thing with a shark on the package that I quite enjoy.

I also happen to live next to Nestle's headquarters in Beijing, and not surprisingly they have backlit posters along the entire front of their property.

Each day, for some reason, my eye was drawn to this guy:

I like him. I like what I presume to be his sunny, optimistic, can-do attitude and his improbably perfect hair. I might be having a rough day because I don't speak the language, I hold no currency, I am a foreign man, I am surrounded by the sounds, the sounds of Hyundai taxis and bicycle bells, and here this guy is, and he says "You hang in there, champ! Life is a jewel, just sitting there waiting for you to SEIZE it! Yeah! Want some coffee?" And somehow everything is better. He's who I would like to be if I were younger and more Chinese.

Now, contrast his earnest, almost violent optimism with this ad just down the road:

Now, she's just trying too hard. I don't buy the whole "I am so cute! Tee hee! Buy my coffee!" act. No ma'am, it's a fine product, but your siren's song has fallen on deaf, stupid American ears! Fie on you, Jezebel! Fie!

And that there is pretty much all you need to know about advertising in China.


A coworker from Hong Kong took me to lunch today and showed me some more shopping nearby. We went to a Japanese buffet with some blessedly safe-looking food. As we went down the line, we got to the fish, and my coworker pointed out some small, whole fish, maybe 4 inches long. "These are very good. Just small bones. You can eat them whole."

"Really?" I said brightly, and helped myself to some salmon and Soba noodles.

One nice thing about this place was it had plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables. I've been craving them given my difficulties buying them and the fact that they don't do as much frozen vegetables as we do at home, so I served myself some broccoli, corn, some kind of green, melon and peaches. They also had small bowls of premade salad, so I grabbed one of those.

It seemed pretty ordinary, but was good to have something leafy. It was lettuce and what seemed to be shredded cabbage with a dressing that resembled Thousand Island. I was digging in and found something strange... could it be...? Yes! Banana slices!

No idea what they were doing there, but I take it as a good omen. In the next few days, I'm going in for bananas of my own!

Monday, May 21, 2007


I ate chicken feet today.

Well, technically, I ate part of a chicken FOOT, then politely shoved the rest to the side of the plate.

I went to a Sichuan (we call it Sezhuan, Seczhuan, Sechzuan and Szerbiak back home) restaurant with the ladies from HR who have been helping me. They were extremely gracious and even allowed me to say if there was anything I didn't want. I said no.

I specifically requested chicken as part of the meal, to make sure there was something safe. Actually, almost everything was great. There was spicy shredded chicken, stir fried greens, some kind of bean/noodle dish, tofu soup, fried potatoes, and a sweet fruity juice-like drink. I grabbed some of everything, including little pieces of what looked like popcorn chicken. I picked one up and put it in my mouth.

Oh sweet mother of mercy. Keep in mind, if you've ever looked at chicken feet, there isn't much meat there. It's mostly gristle and bone, and that's EXACTLY what the texture was like. (Please note: This is NOT an indictment of Chinese cuisine, which I have found delightful and much more varied and subtle than it is in the States. We probably eat many things that they would find upsetting. This just happens to be one that goes the other way.)

I tried eating around the bones, but, to quote some famous woman I can't think of now, there wasn't much THERE there. Like a total buffoon, I ended up picking most of it out of my mouth in probably the classiest Asiatic dining room move since President Bush Sr. lost his lunch on the Japanese prime minister.

The Chief Learning Officer, who has done so much for me, suggested I could swallow the bones.

"Really?" I said brightly, as if I intended to.

So I ditched the rest of them, feeling quite foolish. This is probably one of those cultural things I just won't be able to work around.

I also tried some fish which somehow actually seemed to have EXTRA bones in it. I was trying to do all this with chopsticks, and it was just a dismal failure. I have never had dexterous teeth - I have a hard time eating around cherry pits, for crying out loud. By the time I was done I had eaten about three bites of fish, and my plate looked like I had made a big pile of food in the center, then done my best impersonation of the pie-eating scene in 'Stand By Me.'

Everyone was very nice and pretended not to notice what a rube I was. But I can tell you one thing: I am going to be very selective from now on. Just mound after mound of century eggs.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

China +10: Playing Tourist

Today is officially my 10th day in China, and just yesterday I got to do my first touristy thing: I took a cab into the heart of the city and spent a couple hours at Tian An Men Square and the Forbidden City.

First, Tian An Men Square: You may not have gotten this from the name, but it is a very large public square! If you like enormous, unshaded open spaces, this HAS to top your must-see list!

OK, in seriousness, there are a few impressive sights in the square: a huge monument, Mao's tomb (closed for repairs right now)and the ancient gate at the south end, but mostly it's open space and vendors. I had to keep moving because if I paused, three or four people would descend on me with Mao watches, kites, hats, little red books, postcards and books.

Then there were the scammers: I had read about these in advance, but if you ever visit (assuming you stand out like I do) be ready to be approached about every 3-4 minutes by an 'English student' who wants to practice or an 'art student' who would like you to see their exhibition. Neither scam will kill you - they try to get you into a position where you are compelled to buy grossly overpriced goods - but there's no reason to be stupid, either. Thanks to the wide open square, you can see them coming a mile away, too! I just walked fast and played the ugly American - try to ignore them, say no thanks, no eye contact, keep moving.

The 'English students' seem to have the square itself, while the 'art students' seem to dominate the area leading up to the Forbidden City. But once you pay your 60 yuan and get inside, it is a much more pleasant experience.

I got there at 4, as they were letting the last people in, and the City closes at 5, so I was feeling rushed. Some of the most famous and largest buildings were closed and shrouded in scaffolding and netting, getting cleaned up before the Olympics next year.

So I walked along, looking at red buildings and gilded archways - all very impressive - and then I came to the Imperial Gardens.

Now THAT was worth the price of admission. It's ancient, gorgeous, huge and intimate at the same time, and it was shady and cool. Absolutely spectacular.

By this time many of the people had cleared out, and as I randomly wandered, more and more often I would find myself all alone in some sunlit little courtyard with a tree and another ancient building and nothing else. The temperature had dropped, there was a breeze and that terrific late-afternoon light.

Soon I had to leave and elbow my way through the vendors who had formed a dense crowd around the exit. On my way out I bought some postcards - negotiated from 10 yuan down to 5 (she was annoyed when she saw I had more money in my wallet and angrily thrust the cards at me, but I got the feeling that was for show) - walked several blocks to a cabstand, the last 45 minutes having made the whole thing worthwhile.

Unfortunately, it was only on the last 'art student' of the day that I realized what I should have been saying to them all along:

"Sprechen zie Deutsch?"


That's an old saying, but still true. At one point I had left the area and went into an upscale Western shopping mall several blocks away. I wanted water, but places that sell Rolexes and Cartier are short on convenience stores, so I went into a Starbucks and bought two bottles of Evian (the only bottled water in sight) for 20 yuan each, about $2.50 each. That'd be a mild extravagance in the States, but even more so here, where I have a water dispenser in my kitchen, and each 5 gallon refill costs - you guessed it - 20 yuan.


I like the image of some ancient emperor standing here throwing switches and yelling 'Is it on now?'

Seriously, though, I think this shows one of the differences between ancient cultures and America. You take this exact same pavilion, centuries old, with its history as part of the Imperium, and drop it in America, and we'd build a park around it. Here in China, you can't swing a Mao watch without hitting something 1,000 years old, so they looked at this and... well, those brooms have to go SOMEWHERE.

I did go to the store, but the weighing station looked like one of those raised islands on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange during a crash, so I passed for the day.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Frank's Place

Nothing exciting or especially funny today, but I did do something new. After another longish day at work, I got back to my apartment and I thought: No noodles tonight.

So I went outside, hailed a cab and went about a mile to Frank's Place, a local expatriate bar and restaurant.

I had a burger and fries with the watery ketchup they serve here and some Tsing Tao beer. All was excellent. I got to watch a cricket match and caught some MLB scores from last night/this morning on ESPN Hong Kong (I still have NO IDEA how Cricket works, but England seemed to be winning 346-4 over someone.)

Didn't actually speak to anyone, but it was a cool environment. I bet there were places that were the equivalent of this in newly opened cities throughout history. Shanghai in the 1920's, Cairo in the 1890's, Bombay in the 1850's -- heck, maybe even St. Louis felt like this at one time. Anyplace there's new money to be made, you've got this flood of outsiders looking to capitalize, but they always want a place that serves familiar food and beer.

With all the different languages, the nerd in me who wants things to be dramatic imagined it with a kind of Indiana Jones feel - the American and his British sidekick confronting Germans in the bar in Cairo.

There was the Englishman who spoke perfect Mandarin, the Chinese man in a T-shirt that said 'Las Vegas' and was covered in American flags, a group of Americans in linen shirts and Bermuda shorts playing pool and hitting on Chinese women, an Indian couple watching Cricket, proper-looking older German gentlemen with shaved heads and perfectly trimmed silver goatees, and a group of crop-haired, muscular, dangerous-looking men in baseball caps, jeans and muscle shirts who seemed to alternate between Australian-accented English and German.

Their lives are probably all as mundane as mine -- but darn if it doesn't FEEL cool.

I went back to the market again, and while I succeeded in buying vegetables, I ONCE AGAIN was relieved of my bananas. I thought I did it right - I had them weighed and stickered, but I think the sticker tore, and the cashier couldn't scan it, so she threw them under the register.

These bananas are to me what the rock was to Sisyphus.

I also bought the very smallest package of rice I could find:

4.5 kg, or about 10 pounds.

COMING SOON: I try to figure out how the rice cooker the room came with works.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Emasculated by The Man

I got my temporary residence permit today, and it almost cost me my gender.

If you're going to live in China for any length of time (and I believe this applies to the Chinese as well) you need to be on file at the local police station. Not sure what the minimum stay to apply is, but my three months counts, so a coworker agreed to take a few hours to help me get the paperwork sorted out.

First we had to go back to my apartment to get my passport, then go to the building management, give them my passport, and get a letter stating that yes, I did reside here. Then we took a taxi to the JiuXianQaio police station, where fortunately my coworker did all the talking. My passport and visa were scanned and filed with the letter, my form was filled out and we were on our way within 10 minutes.

Back at the office, when it seemed like all was done, my coworker gasped. "There is a mistake!" she said, pointing at a Chinese character. "They said you are a woman!"

For the record, I wear the dress STRICTLY as a comfort thing, and since when is it a crime to accentuate one's cheekbones and eye color?

I don't know what it says about me that I was seriously a moment from asking her, "Is that a big deal? Do we just let it slide?" But she was already on her way out the door to get a corrected form.

It's a lot of bureaucracy, yes, but it is efficient bureaucracy. Within 45 minutes she was back with a corrected form, as you can clearly see here:

Of course, there were a few other errors that I decided not to bother with. So when I get back in 2016, my name will be Miguel Sanchez, and I will live in Nuevo Laredo.

Just better to let it slide.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Chinternet

OK, I heard from a couple of you wondering what the century eggs tasted like, so today I'll tell a story that at least incorporates that information.

I met today with Jason C., the managing director for the Asia-Pacific region for my company's Web development division, and the creative director of the division's Beijing office. (While in Beijing, I'm working for the traditional ad agency - TV, print etc. - but I am interested in the Web as rule, and was glad to make a connection with a counterpart.)

It was a social call, and a chance to talk a little, but we did talk a little business while he ate a late lunch. I asked how much of their Web work was banner/rich media advertising.

He was somewhat dismissive and said it really doesn't work in China.

Sensing my surprise, he explained that it wasn't a shortcoming of the medium or the creative. Rather, it's a matter of how the Web is used in China.

"Imagine your favorite portal site," he said. "I bet it's pretty customizable, pretty efficient, pretty clean. Now let's look at a Chinese portal site:"

(To all my user experience friends: NOW my concepts don't look so busy, eh?)

He's right. Unless we find a way to actually set the user on fire, there is NO WAY to get anyone's attention with a Web ad.

Anyway, the conversation then turned to food. I mentioned that I had eaten century eggs, and he asked what I thought of them with a smirk.

"Not nearly as bad as they looked to me," I said. "The yolk part tasted kind of like egg yolk, and the rest of it was just kind of indistinct." I could have added that it was maybe a little sour, a little cheesy, but not real strong.

He raised his eyebrows for a moment, then returned his attention to his salad and salmon ravioli in tomato-cream sauce.

"Ooookay," he said.

Maybe I got a bum one.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007


Today I went for lunch with my CD and three coworkers. I'm trying to be very open-minded, so I let them order for me. "Very authentic," my boss stressed.

First out were rubbery, shriveled slices of mushrooms, a plate of bean curd strings and some stir-fried leafy greens in peanut sauce. I ate all and enjoyed. The main course was a purplish rice-based porridge/soup/stew with grapes, lotus seeds, nuts and [miscellaneous/other]. Not bad, but not quite my cup of tea (sunflower tea, BTW, which I really enjoy.) Then something shredded and grean, some meat-pie things, and... oh good lord... it isn't... it IS!...

...a plate of cheerfully-arranged Century Egg wedges. (See my T-Minus 10 Days post for more on this little slice of heaven.)

"You know of this?" my boss asked.

"Yes," I gulped.

"You don't have to try it," he said.

But I couldn't appear weak now, in front of the Chinese. In 20 years, when they're the superpower and I'm writing my mortgage check to the Bank of China, I want them to remember me as a strong, proud man with intestinal fortitude who really is a worthy person.

I went in with the chopsticks.

"You want to take the dark one," a coworker helpfully offered, pointing to one where the congealed egg white had turned from the normal amber to more of a gelatinous mahogany, as if he was letting me have the drumstick at Thanksgiving dinner.

"Is it better?" I asked.

He shrugged.

So anyway, after all that buildup, I ate two.

When China decides to let America off the hook at some point in the future, just remember to thank me.

A few things I hadn't yet posted:


The air in Beijing is THICK this week. We keep our windows open at the office because the government decides when the air conditioning can be turned on (usually a fixed date in June, rather than based on actual temperature) and I sit by a window. By the end of the day, I was watching the beige sun slide down a taupe sky and feeling a little nauseous, when I realized that the low, dark-gray cloud to the southwest - towards the center of the city - WASN'T MOVING.


That's a line I stole from The Simpsons, but it also happens to be my life. I tried buying fruits and veggies at a supermarket, but failed to get them weighed in the produce department, which annoyed the hell out of the cashier. He literally took them away from me and threw them under the register, then clearly made fun of me to the other people in line with bemused contempt. Sheepishly, I took my chicken and went home.

(At least I think it was chicken. It had a cartoon of a chicken on it. But for all I know, the label said "Captain Happy Chicken Brand Rat Fillets.")

Well, gotta go. Beijing OOT!

P.S.: Now, all of a sudden, I CAN see Blogspot locally. Just thought I'd let you know.

Monday, May 14, 2007

1 down, 60-some to go

Had my first day at the office today, and overall it went very well! I showed up at the office at 9:00 in my gray suit with the green and gold tie... and waited.

First person in was the creative group secretary at about 9:15. She spoke good English and got me to my seat. The rest of the office trickled in by 10:00 or so as I was shown around.

I was BADLY overdressed, to the point that the office managing director asked if I wanted to go home and change. Jeans, sneakers and urban hipster printed t-shirts were the norm; one art director wore a sleeveless undershirt to show off his upper arm tattoos.

My first meeting was to kick off a creative campaign for a certain software company. The room was full of creatives and account people, and I can now officially report that the following phenomena are shared in agencies overseas:
* There isn't enough time.
* There isn't enough money.
* The creatives think the account people are unreasonable.
* The account people think the creatives need to suck it up.

There. I hope it was worth sending me halfway around the world at great expense to the shareholders to learn that.

After that my creative director took me out to lunch, which was very nice. I was successful with the chopsticks (look down a few posts to see my secret method) and only spilled a little on my shirt and tie. They had green tea with daisies floating in it that was delicious, shrimp and mushroom, salad, fried vegetable rice and some fat spicy noodles.

In the afternoon I was taken to a commercial shoot for another client, a major shipping company. The commercial starred a Chinese celebrity, an actor known for his role in 'Farewell My Concubine', which will be known to all you chick-flick afficianados out there

I managed to surreptitiously get a shot of the setup of one scene: The stunt man (top, in the white suit) is about to jump onto a trampoline held by several delivery men:

Then I learned an interesting fact about TV commercial shoots: they are BORING.

I stood around for three hours while they got the shots they needed, trying to stay out of the way and talking when I could with a few other people.

We got back to the office at 9:30 to discover that -- TA-DA -- all the creatives were still there working.

Oh, that doesn't bode well...

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Well, I've survived a day...

A little disorienting, but so far so good.

Here's a funny thing: I actually can't access my blog in China. Apparently blogspot.com addresses don't come through, even though I can manage my posts from the Chinese language page I posted yesterday.

Fortunately, I have a workaround, so keep posting comments!

Anyway, the flight was pretty uneventful except for getting into Tokyo late and having to run to make the connection to Beijing. Once I landed, there was a driver to take me to the apartment.

At this point, I had been on the go for something like 23 hours, including airport time in Minneapolis, so I pretty much did everything the apartment receptionist indicated, including handing over 500 yuan ($60-$70, I guess) as a deposit for something I still don't understand - the receipt was all in Chinese.

The apartment is nice - very spacious, lots of windows and very close to work. I had a serious panic attack when I was unable to get on the Internet and couldn't figure out the phones, but once I calmed down and called the front desk, they did something to make the Internet work - which was amazing, because I wasn't sure either of us understood each other.

I've managed to destroy two things since getting here. The office chair that came with the desk was apparently not designed for someone of my generous proportions, because when I sat one of the wheels popped right off. I also thought I was being clever by bringing a power strip, which I plugged into a converter, at which point it exploded. (OK, maybe not into pieces, but it popped and scorched and gave off smoke.)

Other than that, today was about getting oriented and not starving. I went for a few walks, found a grocery/other stuff store where I bought an alarm clock, iron, and enough ramen to last me a few days (I can't read the packaging, so I chose them based on the colors). For dinner, I located a KFC - sue me, I wanted something I could recognize!

So far it's feeling a bit "Lost in Translation"-ish - very few foreigners that I can see, and while many people know a little English, between that and my poor Chinese, there's a lot of smiling and shrugging going on (except the doorman at my apartment, who apparently has been shown the Western art of hand-shaking, which he demonstrates by charging at me grinning with his arm extended straight out whenever he sees me.)

But I'm getting by, and I'm sure it will get easier. I've been able to talk to Shannon several times, and I successfully ordered bottled water for my room entirely in Chinese. I've found an ATM (it works just fine) made a couple transactions and fed myself (hunger is a great motivator to get me to interact with people.)

I guess I start work on Monday, so hopefully I'll start meeting people who can show me the ropes a bit. Until then, I just need to get my body adjusted.

Speaking of which, it's time for bed. Sorry for the rambling message!

Friday, May 11, 2007

China +1: We have landed!

I was going to write something REALLY funny for today, but instead I think I'll just let y'all know that I'm here and safe and doing fine as far as I can tell.

I'll write more tomorrow about the 500 yuan I paid for something I don't quite understand, the panic attack when I was unable to connect to the Internet and how thirsty you get when you CAN'T DRINK THE WATER!

Hopefully posting will go smoothly: Below is what blogger.com looked like when I logged in...

Thursday, May 10, 2007

T-Minus 0 Days: See You In Beijing!

Sorry I haven't had time to post. Been really busy, as you can imagine. My flight leaves in 3 hours, so the next time you hear from me I'll be in Beijing! Keep an eye out for a post sometime Friday or Saturday!

Sunday, May 6, 2007

T-Minus 4 Days: Thanks for the party!

Just a quick thank you to everyone who attended my send-off last night at O'Gara's! And a HUGE thanks to my lovely wife for setting it up. It was great to see so many friends and family together in one place, and I hope you all had as good a time as I did.

Honestly, the hardest part of this trip will be leaving everyone behind, and it's been so hard to see many of you lately as everything has been so crazy. So it was great to have one chance to get together - and hey, any excuse for a party, right?

Friday, May 4, 2007

T-Minus 6 Days: Gentlemen, Start Your Panic! (Part 2)

OK, resuming our countdown of top 10 things I still need to do before going to China:

5.) Adjust My Sleep Schedule: This may surprise you, but China is VERY far away. Imagine how far it is to walk a mile. Pretty far, right? Well, China is WAY further!

It's so far, in fact, that the rules of time and space are torn just getting there, kind of like going through a black hole, only instead of getting compressed into an infinitely small singularity, you come out on the other side and are offered chicken feet as a "snack," which is actually a little harder to wrap my head around.

Anyway, on the other side of space/time in China our 'night' is actually their 'day,' and thanks to the International Date Line, I will take off on Thursday, May 10th and land three weeks ago. To prepare myself for this discombobulation, I am trying to tweak my sleep schedule by forgoing it altogether and drinking a bottle of Absinthe.

4.) Invent Something Brilliant that 1% of China Would Give Me $1 Each For: This is pure genius. There are so many people in China that just getting 1% of them to give me a dollar would set me up for life.

Let's go to the Whiteboard-O-Vision for my business plan:

As you can see, it's almost foolproof. Three of the four components of the plan - myself, the people of China, and their money - are already in place. I will accept investment proposals at this time.

3.) Learn To Use Chopsticks Better:
I thought I was pretty good at this, but my coworkers took me out to eat Chinese yesterday, and I complained of a soreness in my hand, and they suggested maybe I was doing something wrong. I don't think so, but I'm open to critiques:

Step 1: Interlace the RIGHT chopstick with the fingers of your RIGHT hand, using the thumb on the tip to steer it. (Make sure it's the RIGHT chopstick. Reversing them is a common newbie mistake.)

Step 2: Stick the LEFT chopstick under the band of your watch so it sticks straight out when you bend your wrist back, kind of like Spider-Man shooting a web.

Step 3: Enjoy your meal!

2.) Pack:

No problem here...

1.) Get on a plane to China. For real. In less than a week:

Oh pickles. I think I'm going to be sick...